NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 19th Century Essay:
African American Christianity, Pt. II: From the Civil War to the Great Migration, 1865-1920
Laurie Maffly-Kipp
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
©National Humanities Center

Univ. of Chicago Lib.
Ida B. Wells, ca. 1890s
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, ca. 1890s
Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, ed. Alfreda M. Duster [daughter of Ida B. Wells], The University of Chicago Press, 1970, excerpts [photographs added; not in Crusade].

Excerpt One. On a discussion about lynching with British social and religious leaders during a speaking tour of England in 1894; pp. 154-155.


     Again the question was asked where were all the legal and civil authorities of the country, to say nothing of the Christian churches, that they permitted such things to be? I could only say that despite the axiom that there is a remedy for every wrong, everybody in authority from the President of the United States down, had declared their inability to do anything; and that the Christian bodies and moral associations do not touch the question. It is the easiest way to get along in the South (and those portions in the North where lynchings take place) to ignore the question altogether; our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians. The feelings of the people who commit these acts must not be hurt by protesting against this sort of thing, and so the bodies of the victims of mob hate must be sacrificed, and the country disgraced because of that fear to speak out.


     It seems incredible to them that the Christian churches of the South refuse to admit Negro communicants into their houses of worship save in the galleries or in the back seats. When I told of a young mulatto named James Cotton who was dragged out of one of the leading churches in Memphis, Tennessee, by a policeman and shut up in the station house all day Sunday, for taking a seat in the church, one lady remarked that it was easy to believe anything after that.

     I was asked if Northern churches knew of this discrimination and continued fellowship with the churches which practiced it. Truth compelled me to reply in the affirmative, and to give instances which showed that in every case the Northern churches, which do not practice these things themselves, tacitly agreed to them by the southern churches; and that so far as I knew principle has always yielded to prejudice in the hope of gaining the good will of the South.

     I had especially in mind the National Baptist Convention which met in Philadelphia in June 1892. An effort was made to have a resolution passed by that convention condemning lynching, as the Methodist Episcopal Conference had done at Omaha in May. The committee on resolutions decided that it could not be done as they had too many southern delegates present and did not wish to offend them.

Excerpt Two. On the response to rioting in Springfield, Illinois in 1908; at this time Wells was living in Chicago and teaching Sunday school in her Presbyterian church; pp. 299-300

     During this time the riot broke out in Springfield, Illinois, and raged there for three days. Several daily papers called me up to know if we were going to hold an indignation meeting or what action, if any, was to be undertaken by us. The only church in which we had been wont to have such meetings would not, I was sure, give permission for me to hold one there and I felt sure that no one else would undertake it. . . .

Illinois Hist. Soc.
Lynching in Springfiled, Illinois during 1908 riot
Lynching in Springfield, Illinois during 1908 riot

"The fact that nobody seemed worried was as terrible a thing as the
riot itself."

     I had such a feeling of impotency through the whole matter. Our race had not yet perfected an organization which was prepared to take old of this situation, which seemed to be becoming as bad in Illinois as it had hitherto been in Georgia. As I wended my way tyo Sunday school that bright Sabbath day, brooding over what was still going on at our state capital, I passed numbers of people out parading in their Sunday finery. None of them seemed to be worried by the fact of this three days' riot going on less than two hundred miles away.

     I do not remember what the lesson was about that Sunday, but when I came to myself I found I had given vent to a passionate denunciation of the apathy of our people over this terrible thing. I told those young men that we should be stirring ourselves to see what could be done. When one of them asked, "What can we do about it?" I replied that they could at least get together and ask themselves that question. The fact that nobody seemed worried was as terrible a thing as the riot itself.

     One of the young men said our leaders ought to take some action about it, and I said, "That does not absolve you from responsibility." He replied, "We have no place to meet," and I quickly answered, "If there are any of you who desire to come together to consider this thing, I here and now invite you to my home this afternoon."

     Three out of those thirty responded to my invitation! We discussed the situation from every angle and decided that we ought to try to get an organization among the young men which would undertake to consider such matters. Every one of the three was doubtful as to whether we could get such an organization going, but I urged them to try and see if each could report next Sunday with at least one other person.

     That was the beginning of what was afterward to be known as the Negro Fellowship League.

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African American Christianity, Pt. II: From the Civil War to the Great Migration, 1865-1920 (part 3)

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